We already shop, e-mail and pay bills online, so why not diagnose our latest medical condition?

The Internet can be a treasure trove of medical information, but it can also lead to the creation of cyberchondriacs that can simply type in their symptoms and be inundated with information about rare diseases or conditions and manifest a state of medical concern.

When you go online and show up [at a doctors office] with a fist full of printouts it can be insulting, says Trisha Torrey, founder of Every Patients Advocate, http:trishatorrey.com, a blog focused on patient empowerment and advocacy. Make sure you are learning information that is relevant. If youre going to have a conversation with your doctor dont waste time having a conversation about information thats plain wrong.

Its quite common for consumers to turn to the Internet to learn more about an illness, treatment or to even diagnosis a potential problem, but not every health-related website is created equal. Some sites have alternative motives like hawking a treatment or medicine, and may present medical information in a manner that is beneficial to the company, not the patient.  You cant believe everything you read, says Torrey. Make sure youre not getting your information from someone thats trying to make money.

Dr. Brent Bauer, a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says that while the Internet can be very useful searching symptoms and researching an illness, consumers should go to academic medical centers to get health-related information.

A lot of academic centers have great resources, he says, noting that including a minus sign in a search will drop out a lot of the commercial websites that may have another motive for presenting the information.

Consumers should check sites for a HONcode (Health on the Net) which designates they have been certified for offering transparent, objective and credible medical information, according to Bauer. Do your homework on whatever site youre using, he says; ask who is publishing it, what is their intent and how dated is the information?  

Message boards can also be a useful resource to learn about an illness or treatment from people that have had similar experiences.   You can get some of the best information from a message board, says Torrey. You can get a lot of information from other patients or caregivers.

Once patients have gathered information, the next step is to start a conversation with their doctor, but how they present their findings could mean the difference between a productive conversation and one that simply wastes time.

According to Torrey, showing up with a ton of printouts not only suggests to the doctor that the appointment is going to run way too long, but it also puts the doctor on the defense. Instead of attacking the doctor and demanding to know why he or she hasnt told you about this or that, Torrey suggest asking the doctor what he or she knows about a specific treatment or diagnosis. It keeps them interested. Its no longer a contentious thing. Leave the papers at home. Ask questions instead of making statements.

Bauer adds that dropping 40 pages in front of a doctor will start the conversation off on the wrong foot since doctors face severe time constraints.  Having a well-informed patient is my goal, which means doing some homework rather than finding a 100 ideas and hoping for some magic in a 15-minute visit, he says.  Patients should craft a list of questions based on the research to make the visit focused on the illness or treatment, instead of deflecting ideas that dont actually pertain to the problem at hand.

Bauer, whose main research is in alternative types of healing, welcomes input from patients and says the Internet is a great resource for doctors and patients alike.  Its a good resource for physicians its just a matter of presenting it in a respectable fashion.